Annie Hall feels like the work of a madman more than any other film I’ve seen. Sure, I’ve seen the works of Russ Meyer, of Harmony Korine and of Gaspar Noe, and their films are clearly infused with madness. Don’t get me wrong – Lars von Trier, Alejandro Jodorowsky and John Waters are all crazy in their own particular way. Werner Herzog continued an interview after being shot by a sniper in the abdomen, jumped onto a cactus patch after accidentally setting fire to a dwarf, and literally ate his own shoes once, and yet, to me, his films seem positively serene compared to Annie Hall. Annie Hall is so manic, so neurotic, and so scattershot. Woody Allen directed, wrote and starred in the film, and Allen’s auteurist grip on the film ensures that every frame oozes with his neuroticism. Annie Hall is, quite simply, a portal into Woody Allen’s psyche.
The scenes seem to follow no logical order. Allen constantly breaks the fourth wall to address the audience. He uses many little tricks to create a work that is undeniably filmic in nature; from split-screen editing to the inventive subtitling, where the characters’ dialogue is subtitled with what they actually are thinking when they are speaking. It seems as though every thought that popped into Allen’s head when writing the script is inserted into the film, weaving in everything from the JFK assassination to old Groucho Marx jokes. The dialogue doesn’t exist to advance the plot, because there isn’t much of a plot to advance.
And yet Annie Hall feels like such a complete whole to me. It is the work of a director expressing himself in the best way he could – through a romantic comedy. Inevitably, the result is a messy, poignantly personal and riotously funny masterpiece that makes every other romantic comedy pale in comparison. Woody Allen plays comedian Alvy Singer, and while many protagonists in Allen’s films are substitutes for the director himself, none feel as clear and direct as Alvy. Alvy falls in and out of love with the eponymous Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), and constantly philosophises about why their relationship disintegrated.
I might be making Annie Hall sound like an obscure little film, but it is probably the film in my top ten that most of you have seen. It was a critical and commercial success, making $38 million at the box office (his biggest film when adjusted for inflation) and winning four Oscars including Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and Actress for Diane Keaton. And it was a critical and commercial success because it is, quite simply, hilarious. In fact, I regard it as the funniest film I’ve ever seen, funnier even than Airplane! and Life of Brian. Here are just a handful of the hundreds of witty, off-the-cuff remarks that Alvy Singer makes on a vast range of topics:
- Alvy Singer (i.e. Woody Allen) on masturbation: “Don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.”
- Alvy Singer (i.e. Woody Allen) on grandparents: “My Grammy never gave gifts. She was too busy getting raped by Cossacks.”
- Alvy Singer (i.e. Woody Allen) on Los Angeles: “I don’t want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light.”
- Alvy Singer (i.e. Woody Allen) on Harvard University: “Hey, Harvard makes mistakes too – Kissinger taught there.”
- Alvy Singer (i.e. Woody Allen) on psychotherapy: “I was suicidal as a matter of fact, and would have killed myself, but I was in analysis with a strict Freudian, and if you kill yourself, they make you pay for the sessions you miss.”
Clearly, Annie Hall is filled to the brim with Woody Allen’s perspective on everything to do with Western life, specifically American life, and specifically New York life. His agoraphobia and Los-Angeles-phobia (physically becoming ill when arriving in LA) is sold with the trademark Woody Allen stammer that is endearing to some, and irritating to many others. I suppose I’m a Woody Allen fan – I own twenty-one of his films on DVD – but I don’t think you need to like, or even tolerate, Woody Allen to enjoy Annie Hall. It’s amazing how a film that comes from such a personal place from the director can have something that appeals to everyone, as I’m sure everyone can relate to at least one thing that Alvy says, even if you dislike his neurotic persona.
But the film is driven by the two leads and the emerging and fading relationship between Annie and Alvy. The titular Annie Hall is played so superbly by Diane Keaton that she created not only a fascinating character – she’s genial, eccentric, giddy and just a bit ditzy – but also created a cultural icon. Annie’s unusual fashion style was Keaton’s own decision, and if you’ve seen Diane Keaton on Ellen DeGeneres’ show recently, you would know that the character of Annie Hall bears remarkable similarities to Keaton herself. Allen and Keaton’s natural chemistry (she appeared in many of his films, and in many regards is the Robert De Niro to Allen’s Martin Scorsese) is accentuated in Annie Hall, as they are really just playing hyperbolised versions of themselves.
Following films like the farcical Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Too Afraid to Ask) and the sci-fi comedy Sleeper, Allen came out with something far more profound, and ultimately more lasting, than any of his previous films. This is his love letter to, well, love: the complexities, the impermanence and the thrills of romance. As Tony Roberts, who plays Alvy’s best friend Rob in the film, once said about Annie Hall, it is “the story of everybody who falls in love, and then falls out of love and goes on”. I think that says it all.